By adaptive - March 8th, 2016

National Public Radio (NPR), the US public media network, produces and distributes news and cultural programming to hundreds of local radio station affiliates. Currently, most NPR programming is consumed by listeners in their cars while driving during morning or evening commutes.

But with “drive time” evolving into something different, Kati Rubinyi reports that NPR faces new challenges to complete the journey with its listeners.

Drive time, in broadcast parlance, has always meant the key times during the day when people are literally captive audiences in their cars on the way to, or home from, the workplace. These served as prime time for signature broadcasts and of course for charging premiums to advertisers.
But technology has been changing this dynamic for years, with even greater changes expected just around the corner.
Faster broadband and improved Wi-Fi connections have allowed for more telecommuting and letting people work from home offices, the coffee shop, and even public parks.

Moreover, drivers will soon be taking “immersed” rides in autonomous vehicles.
They will be immersed in media, with sound and visuals likely overlaid with branding by automakers. These scenarios contrast sharply with the challenges presented by an opposing trend: a larger number of commuters with multi-modal journeys that, in sequence, mix driving (or riding in a self-driving car or carshare), with public transit, or cycling, and walking.
NPR has anticipated this variety of listening and traveling modes and the broadcaster is designing compelling experiences for the entire spectrum of journeys while expecting fewer total trips that are more disrupted than today’s travels.

Even as cities are becoming more densely populated, many in the US are underserved by mass transit, which diminishes the viability of walking and cycling as a means of getting around. But transportation agencies and local governments are trying to disrupt the automobile’s hegemony by expanding light rail and subway lines, and through programs encouraging bicycles and walking.

The strong push to expand multi-modal transportation coincides with technological advances in media platforms - and bridges across platforms. This means reinforcements for the public sector mission from an unexpected source: providers of media content who are designing for multi-modal travel.

Demien Perry, Director, Mobile, and his research and development colleagues at NPR are thinking beyond the “in-car experience” to the whole-journey experience. In an interview Dan Newman, Deputy Creative Director and Vince Farquarson, Interactive Designer, Mobility, explained their goal to make cross-platform listening customized, elastic, and free-floating.

“We are extending the NPR brand by meeting the audience where they are in a new kind of ‘lean back’ experience,” Newman explains, adding, “We're considering the listening experience as having more data points than we have now, in a range of environments from self-driving cars to telecommuting.”

In other words, the NPR executives envision audio content seamlessly flowing from one context to another as the listener moves through his or her day or her journey. Regardless of location or mode of travel; with the program delivery zooming in and out between individualized local and national news stories, and shifting between real-time, cached or pre-recorded content.

Some examples of what this would look like:
One listener, getting ready to go to work, is using Chromecast on her television to get caught up on national news stories delivered through audio and graphics. She walks to the light-rail station, and once she is in her seat, she resumes listening. The system knows to play a favorite syndicated show auto-cached on her iPhone from the NPR One app. On her walk from the train to work, she hears a recorded version of the county board meeting that took place the night before and was uploaded to the cloud by her local public radio station.

In another scenario, a listener voice-activates a Sonos speaker in his kitchen to hear the weather and local news. Continuity is maintained as he gets into his car and activates the head-unit. While driving, he asks the system to play international stories and later requests national stories which are covered by his local station in four-minute long increments.

The seamless transitions and cohesive listening experience across modes depend on analysis of listener travel patterns and user preferences. NPR needs to know where the listener is, and what he or she wants to be listening to at any given time. Tone of voice in a phrase like “catch me up” is scanned for bio-informatics that indicate mood, and that information is linked to assumptions about preference.

The research team at NPR wants the audience member, through a combination of active and passive means, to guide the listening experience and the mix of content according to what interests him or her. The network will work with third parties in order to deliver these individualized content flows.

“I can’t see us gathering and processing the data ourselves - partly because of the privacy concerns, and also because this is a hairy data-science problem - but I can see us leveraging data from third-party APIs that collect information about users who expressly note their intention to share their data with NPR,” Newman explains. “This could either be done through a specific platform API, such as a connected car, or cross-platform - possibly through the Google Now API. These listeners would already be sharing their data with a third party.”

Unlike automakers adapting oncoming content-delivery technology to help them stand out in the marketplace, the team at NPR is thinking about the potential listener experience across platforms and devices both stationary and mobile. Given the urbanization of our cities, and all the many good reasons for us to get out of our cars, the network is helping cities in their multi-modal mission by reinventing the pleasures of the “driveway moment” for the entire trip. 

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